Outdoor writer Mike McQuaide revisits Mount Si, the rocky massif east of Seattle that is a training ground for new climbers as well as Afghanistan-bound soldiers.
Mount Si: Northwest icon. Trampled upon annually by some 100,000 pairs of hiking boots, running shoes, Crocs, flip-flops and the like. Media star, too, featured in the old David Lynch TV weirdfest, “Twin Peaks.” And for Seattle’s Tim Van Beek, veritable life saver.
About 10 years ago, Van Beek was a stressed-out, overworked, overweight schlub who was alarmed to discover that he could no longer see his own toes.
“I looked down one day and I’d grown this great big belly,” says the 45-year-old. “It scared me and I realized I needed to make a lifestyle change.”
Off he went to REI for a new pair of hiking boots, and to the summit of Mount Si, the monolith looming over Interstate 90 at North Bend, he pointed those boots.
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On that first attempt exhaustion turned him around before he’d even made it to Snag Flats, less than halfway up the four-mile trail that climbs roughly 3,300 feet. Undaunted, he returned the next day, this time making it past Snag Flats to the three-mile post. (Mile- and half-mile posts mark the trail.) Twenty-four hours later he was back yet again and this time made it all the way to the top, rewarded with that spectacular Mount Rainier-Snoqualmie Valley-practically all of Western Washington panoramic vista that lures so many to this rocky massif just a half-hour east of Seattle.
“When I got there, it was one of those epiphany moments,” Van Beek says. “Not only was it a great workout but you could see forever from up there. It changed my entire view of the outdoors.”
Over the course of two months Van Beek hiked to the top 50 times — often loading his pack with rocks or carrying 5-pound weights in each hand to make the trek even more difficult — and lost 40 pounds along the way. He began volunteering for Washington Trails Association and eventually found his calling; these days Van Beek is a project coordinator for the trail advocacy group and has led work crews on Mount Si.
“I’d been looking for something but I didn’t know what it was until I hiked Mount Si,” he says.
Lifesaver, media star, Washington state’s most popular hiking trail, Mother Nature’s StairMaster from hell — Mount Si is all these things, but it’s also a stunningly beautiful forest walk. Go early in the morning, especially on a weekday, and you might just feel like you’ve got the mountain to yourself. (For a little while, anyway.) Then, the forest is much like any other — a cathedral for contemplation, a place where you scan the canopy trying to pinpoint the knock-knock-knocking of a pileated woodpecker. A place to crane your neck skyward in wonder at some of the 350-year-old Douglas firs, many of them whose craggy bark was scarred black in 1910 during the last forest fire that swept through here. (Interpretive signs in the Snag Flats area tell more of the tale.)
For a little variety and to get off the beaten path, consider a side trip on the Talus Loop Trail, found a little less than a mile up the Mount Si trail. It swings east across the lower flanks of the mountain and in less than a mile, breaks out of the forest to an open talus stretch with terrific views south to the Snoqualmie River Valley and east to Mailbox Peak, Defiance Ridge and beyond.
But what of that StairMaster from hell aspect?
“I’m getting ready to ship out to Afghanistan so I’ve got to get used to the elevation,” says a fast-hiking Joshua Meyers, slowing down briefly during a Mount Si hike a couple weeks ago. He’s the fastest of the two busloads of Fort Lewis soldiers I came across, here to use the mountain for training.
Struggling to keep up with him, I ask the 28-year-old staff sergeant how much the large pack that he’s wearing weighs. “Not much — with the body armor and everything else, probably about 40 pounds.”
And then he’s gone. (Later, on my way down, I’d see him heading up for a second ascent, this time sans pack.)
Mount Si is consistent in its grade, with each of its four miles (one-way) climbing just about 825 feet. That’s roughly a 16 percent grade nonstop for four miles. (Heartier souls can scramble up the Haystack — a rocky 200-foot-high outcrop that crowns the mountain and requires rock-climbing skills.)
The Washington Alpine Club uses Mount Si for its climbing class, setting a goal time of two hours for participants.
“The two-hour mark gives us an idea of how folks will do in the class,” says Pat O’Brien, a Beginning Climbing instructor for the club. “Two hours with a pack is not an outrageous goal to meet. Most of the folks make it in the one-and-a-half hour range. If they can’t make it, it’s a red light for us.”
At Haystack Basin, the mostly flat meadow at the base of the Haystack, I find Redmond’s Rick and Sue (who choose to give first names only) sitting on a bench enjoying the sweeping, wide-angle views west toward the Olympics, the serpentine curves of the Snoqualmie River, and the various and sundry suburban sprawldoms almost directly below. They’re in training for an upcoming four-day wilderness adventure, hiking the 26-mile Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru, where they’ll reach altitudes of 13,000 feet and above. As part of their preparation, they’ve hiked Mount Si three times in the previous seven days.
“This is the only hike we can find where we can get this high without hitting any snow,” Sue tells me.
That’s another draw of the Mount Si climb — on the south-facing slope, the snow melts earlier than it does on trails on the south side of I-90 and, because it’s densely wooded, Si isn’t as prone to avalanches when it is snow-covered.
Top of the ‘stack
From Rick and Sue’s bench, the trail swings around to the north and ends at the base of the Haystack and the scrambling route to the top. Without ropes or protection, many people spider their way right up to the top (none of them the author of this story) to what is Mount Si’s true summit, at 4,167 feet.
Here’s where I meet Owen Strom from Snoqualmie and Nathan Sansburn of North Bend.
“I’m training for Rainier,” Strom says. “I’m climbing it this weekend.”
“Not me,” Sansburn says. “I’m just tagging along.”
And up they go, picking their way with hands as well as feet up the well-worn gully route. I head down to the basin where divebombing Steller’s jays raise a ruckus and flocks of phlox add splashes of foreground color to the spectacular far-reaching views. I’m in a mellow mountain mood, well-earned after such an arduous hike. More and more hikers make it to the top — pairs, individuals, the busloads from Fort Lewis — but there seems to be enough room for everyone.
I hear a “Wooohooo!” carrying across the valley and, looking up, see Strom and Sansburn atop the Haystack, waving their arms over their heads. They made it to the top.
Looks like we all did.
Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham freelance writer and author of “Day Hike! Central Cascades” and “Day Hike! North Cascades” (Sasquatch Books).